How to Make Yourself Do It When You Just Don’t Want To
Three strategies to help you stop putting things off
There’s that project you’ve left on the backburner — the one with the deadline that’s growing uncomfortably near. And there’s the client whose phone call you really should return — the one that does nothing but complain and eat up your valuable time. Wait, weren’t you going to try to go to the gym more often this year?
Can you imagine how much less guilt, stress, and frustration you would feel if you could somehow just make yourself do the things you don’t want to do when you are actually supposed to do them? Not to mention how much happier and more effective you would be?
The good news (and it’s very good news) is that you can get better about not putting things off, if you use the right strategy. Figuring out which strategy to use depends on why you are procrastinating in the first place:
Reason #1 You are putting something off because you are afraid you will screw it up.
Solution: Adopt a “prevention focus.”
There are two ways to look at any task. You can do something because you see it as a way to end up better off than you are now — as an achievement or accomplishment. As in, if I complete this project successfully I will impress my boss, or if I work out regularly I will look amazing. Psychologists call this a promotion focus – and research shows that when you have one, you are motivated by the thought of making gains, and work best when you feel eager and optimistic. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, if you are afraid you will screw up on the task in question, this is not the focus for you. Anxiety and doubt undermine promotion motivation, leaving you less likely to take any action at all.
What you need is a way of looking at what you need to do that isn’t undermined by doubt —ideally, one that thrives on it. When you have a prevention focus, instead of thinking about how you can end up better off, you see the task as a way to hang on to what you’ve already got — to avoid loss. For the prevention-focused, successfully completing a project is a way to keep your boss from being angry or thinking less of you. Working out regularly is a way to not “let yourself go.” Decades of research, which I describe in my book Focus, shows that prevention motivation is actually enhanced by anxiety about what might go wrong. When you are focused on avoiding loss, it becomes clear that the only way to get out of danger is to take immediate action. The more worried you are, the faster you are out of the gate.
I know this doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, particularly if you are usually more the promotion-minded type, but there is probably no better way to get over your anxiety about screwing up than to give some serious thought to all the dire consequences of doing nothing at all. Go on, scare the pants off yourself. It feels awful, but it works.
Reason #2 You are putting something off because you don’t “feel” like doing it.
Solution: Make like Spock and ignore your feelings. They’re getting in your way.
In his excellent book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman points out that much of the time, when we say things like “I just can’t get out of bed early in the morning“ or “I just can’t get myself to exercise,” what we really mean is that we can’t get ourselves to feel like doing these things. After all, no one is tying you to your bed every morning. Intimidating bouncers aren’t blocking the entrance to your gym. Physically, nothing is stopping you — you just don’t feel like it. But as Burkeman asks, “Who says you need to wait until you ‘feel like’ doing something in order to start doing it?”
Think about that for a minute, because it’s really important. Somewhere along the way, we’ve all bought into the idea — without consciously realizing it — that to be motivated and effective we need to feel like we want to take action. We need to be eager to do so. I really don’t know why we believe this, because it is 100 percent nonsense. Yes, on some level you need to be committed to what you are doing — you need to want to see the project finished, or get healthier, or get an earlier start to your day. But you don’t need to feel like doing it.
In fact, as Burkeman points out, many of the most prolific artists, writers, and innovators have become so in part because of their reliance on work routines that forced them to put in a certain number of hours a day, no matter how uninspired (or, in many instances, hungover) they might have felt. Burkeman reminds us of renowned artist Chuck Close’s observation that “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.”
So if you are sitting there, putting something off because you don’t feel like it, remember that you don’t actually need to feel like it. There is nothing stopping you.
Reason #3 You are putting something off because it’s hard, boring, or otherwise unpleasant.
Solution: Use if-then planning.
Too often, we try to solve this particular problem with sheer will: Next time, I will make myself start working on this sooner. Of course, if we actually had the willpower to do that, we would never put it off in the first place. Studies show that people routinely overestimate their capacity for self-control, and rely on it too often to keep them out of hot water.
Do yourself a favor, and embrace the fact that your willpower is limited, and that it may not always be up to the challenge of getting you to do things you find difficult, tedious, or otherwise awful. Instead, use if-then planning to get the job done.
Making an if-then plan is more than just deciding what specific steps you need to take to complete a project — it’s also deciding where and when you will take them.
If it is 2 p.m., then I will stop what I’m doing and start work on the report Bob asked for.
If my boss doesn’t mention my request for a raise at our meeting, then I will bring it up again before the meeting ends.
By deciding in advance exactly what you’re going to do, and when and where you’re going to do it, there’s no deliberating when the time comes. No do I really have to do this now?, or can this wait till later? or maybe I should do something else instead. It’s when we deliberate that willpower becomes necessary to make the tough choice. But if-then plans dramatically reduce the demands placed on your willpower, by ensuring that you’ve made the right decision way ahead of the critical moment. In fact, if-then planning has been shown in over 200 studies to increase rates of goal attainment and productivity by 200-300 percent on average.
I realize that the three strategies I’m offering you — thinking about the consequences of failure, ignoring your feelings, and engaging in detailed planning — don’t sound as fun as advice like “Follow your passion!” or “Stay positive!” But they have the decided advantage of actually being effective — which, as it happens, is exactly what you’ll be if you use them.
Wanted to share this helpful tool with anyone who needs it. A lot of people have a hard time putting their feelings into words and identifying what emotions they are feeling. This is called a feeling wheel. It can help you get to the core emotion you are experiencing and help you name each feeling when you’re overwhelmed with many emotions
Are You Capable of Change?
Change can be truly life affirming if we use it to sharpen and focus our minds.
We’re more than a month into 2014 and already, it’s happened. Most of our New Year’s resolutions have been abandoned, forgotten, or somehow just fallen off our radar screens as we rush through our hectic lives.
Yet, only a month ago, when the year was still new and it was the time for a fresh start, our resolutions meant something important to us. Each resolution was—and still is—a statement to ourselves that something serious needed to change. We know we can’t stay stuck in our familiar ruts. We’re ready to be a better version of ourselves.
So where did that resolve go? What happened to the determination to make a fresh start and replace old habits with wise choices?
Change is painful and can feel impossible sometimes because it triggers our body’s inner alarm system. The alarm in your brain, the amygdala, doesn’t like it when something is different. Different could mean trouble. So the alarm tells our body to pump out the stress hormones and pulls up distressing thoughts and feelings from our memory centers, in order to drive us to get back to what seems like a comfortable place of old habits.
But you are more capable of change than you know. Every day we make numerous changes, and we don’t realize it. You think you’re stressed by your fast paced life; you feel like everything is chaotic. But you constantly adapt, taking charge and making your life as good as it can be even when it is ambiguous and complex. We may not like change, but it is, in fact, what’s sets us free from the worst aspects of stress: the tedious grind of not really living when we’re stuck on autopilot.
There are three kinds of change that trigger the brain’s alarm: unexpected, traumatic, and planned. In each situation, there is an opportunity right alongside the crisis, a way to focus that will allow you to handle change with a sense of calm and confidence.
Unexpected change, whether a re-org at work or a snowstorm that was supposed to be fair skies, brings with it the alarm’s signals that something is wrong. Those alarm signals may take the form of feelings of sadness, worry, guilt, or frustration. Mindless habits can be a distraction from those unpleasant feelings and the uncomfortable thoughts that accompany them—but nothing really changes. As a result, our inner alarm stays turned on and sooner or later we’re feeling upset or miserable again, and nothing has changed for the better. The way to make unexpected change an opportunity is to pay attention to the challenge that change is posing, instead of trying to distract ourselves. Whether change happens for a reason or is just random, it always poses a challenge: to re-examine the beliefs or choices, the lifestyles or relationships, that we have taken for granted and might either need more thoughtful attention or serious reconsideration.
Traumatic change, whether natural disaster, violence, or a serious accident or sudden illness, turns our alarm on red alert. That’s when we feel like the world is going to end, or that the world as we knew it really has ended. Traumatic change confronts us with an immediate challenge—survival, and a much longer-term challenge—transforming our lives to preserve what we value while adjusting to a radically new “normal.”
The brain’s alarm is an expert at the adjustment process, but it takes the whole brain, and the heart, to remember that there is more to life after trauma than just survival. In the wake of traumatic change, focusing on our core values and life commitments can be incredibly difficult, yet those are the constants that are the best—and often only—guide when trauma forces us to confront deeply painful changes.
Finally, there’s planned change, for example the changes you resolved to make for this new year. Planned change may seem much easier than change that is unexpected or traumatic, but it still makes us uncomfortable. We know it’s happening, we don’t like it, but we have time to prepare for the discomfort.
When planned changes get stalled or left unfinished or never really started, it’s not a lack of desire in most cases, but our alarm that shuts us down. To the alarm, change, even planned change, equals danger. It takes more discipline to set a goal and stick with it when the change is coming from our own decisions rather than from unexpected or traumatic events. But when the goal is based on what we truly value in life and who we are as a person, that focus can make change really happen. The key to sustained success in making a planned change is to pay as much, if not more, attention to the push-back from your brain’s alarm as to the change itself.
We’ve found a good way to do this is to create a new habit that is mindful, rather than mindless like most other habits. The habit is mental focusing. It is as simple as one-two-three, or as we’ve learned to do it, S-O-S:
- Sweep your mind clear, take a break from all the racing thoughts and just be quiet for just a few seconds.
- Orient yourself by choosing one thought that expresses what you value and who you are as a person—the thought might be deep, like thinking of someone you love, or very ordinary, like picturing a place or activity that makes you feel peaceful and happy.
- Self-check your stress level (from 1 to 10, no stress to the worst stress ever) and your personal control level (from 1 to 10, feeling confused and out of control to thinking so clearly that you can handle anything).
This can be done anywhere, anytime (as long as you don’t close your eyes while driving). Every time you focus your mind in this way, you’ll find it easier to remember and actually make the effort to make a planned change. You’ve turned down the alarm in your brain and reminded yourself to pay attention to what’s important in life.
Once you’re focused on what you value and who you are as a person, change makes more sense and becomes real. But you can’t do this just once or twice and expect dramatic results—to harness the power of your brain to make important changes, it’s necessary to live every day in a focused way. Not every moment, but returning to your focus repeatedly during the day.
Change can be truly life affirming if we use it to sharpen and focus our minds. The essence of a fresh start is not simply a change in behavior, it’s a fundamental change in our hearts and minds and a focus on what we value and who we are.
When change is based on what we deeply value and believe in, then change is not just a temporary diversion, but a return to who we truly are as a person. Thankfully, we have the ability to focus on what matters to us during times of transition. That’s the good news, but the bad news is that most of us haven’t decided to seize be clear about what beliefs and values are most important and stay focused on them when we are uncomfortable. We can though, and that’s the secret to turning the alarm down in the face of change.
How to Tell a Sociopath from a Psychopath
Many forensic psychologists and criminologists use the terms sociopathy and psychopathy interchangeably. Leading experts disagree on whether there are meaningful differences between the two conditions. However, there are significant distinctions between them.
The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), released by the American Psychiatric Association in 2013, lists both sociopathy and psychopathy under the heading of Antisocial Personality Disorders (ASPD). These disorders share many common behavioral traits which lead to the confusion between them. Key traits that sociopaths and psychopaths share include:
- A disregard for laws and social mores
- A disregard for the rights of others
- A failure to feel remorse or guilt
- A tendency to display violent behavior and emotional outbursts
In addition to their commonalities, sociopaths and psychopaths also have their own unique behavioral characteristics as well.
Sociopaths tend to be nervous and easily agitated. They are volatile and prone to emotional outbursts, including fits of rage. They are likely to be uneducated and live on the fringes of society, unable to hold down a steady job or stay in one place for very long. It is difficult but not impossible for sociopaths to form attachments with others. Many sociopaths are able to form an attachment to a particular individual or group, although they have no regard for society in general or its rules. In the eyes of others, sociopaths will appear to be very disturbed. Any crimes committed by a sociopath, including murder, will tend to be haphazard and spontaneous rather than planned.
Psychopaths, on the other hand, are unable to form emotional attachments or feel real empathy with others, although they often have disarming or even charming personalities. Psychopaths are very manipulative and can easily gain people’s trust. They learn to mimic emotions, despite their inability to actually feel them, and will appear normal to unsuspecting people. Psychopaths are often well educated and hold steady jobs. Some are so good at manipulation and mimicry that they have families and other long-term relationships without those around them ever suspecting their true nature. When committing crimes, psychopaths carefully plan out every detail in advance and often have contingency plans in place. Unlike their sociopathic counterparts, psychopathic criminals are cool, calm, and meticulous.
The etiology or cause of psychopathy is different than the cause of sociopathy. It is believed that psychopathy is the result of “nature” (genetics) while sociopathy is the result of “nurture” (environment). Psychopathy is related to a physiological defect that results in the underdevelopment of the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and emotions. Sociopathy, on the other hand, is more likely the product of childhood trauma and physical/emotional abuse. Because sociopathy appears to be learned rather than innate, sociopaths are capable of empathy in certain circumstances but not in others.
Psychopathy is the most dangerous of all antisocial personality disorders and many serial killers, including Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy, are unremorseful psychopaths.
➜ On Attraction.
"Our attractions are forged in the deep space of our being, born of countless, often unknowable forces. When we encounter someone for the first time, our psyche and our heart begin an astonishingly complex scan, picking up obvious cues like physique and facial structure, but also noting myriad subtle cues such as body language, facial expression, the contour of the lips, the nuance of the voice, and the muscles around the eyes. We instantly process all this information without even knowing it. All we feel is desire or the lack of it. Scientists tell us that a silkworm can smell one other silkworm moth of the opposite sex from six and a half miles away. While our mating instinct may not be as developed as this species of moth, nature has bestowed an exquisite sensitivity upon our romantic radar, programmed to find just the right person to trigger whatever emotional circuitry we need to work through.
All of us are attracted to a certain type that stops us dead in our tracks: a physical type, an emotional type, and a personality type. Let’s say that there is a spectrum of attraction, from one to ten, and the people at the low end of the spectrum (like numbers one and two) aren’t physically or romantically attractive to us at all. But those on the “ten” end of the spectrum are icons: they’re compellingly attractive, they make us weak in the knees, and they trigger both our insecurities and our longing. Harville Hendrix, the founder of Imago Therapy, illuminates this phenomenon in a way which sheds light on our entire intimacy journey. He teaches that these people are so attractive to us in part because they embody not only the best, but also the the worst emotional characteristics of our parents!
Even though we may be adults, all of us have unresolved childhood hurts due to betrayal, anger, manipulation or abuse. Unconsciously, we seek healing through our partner. And we try to achieve this healing by bonding with someone who we sense might hurt us in similar ways to how we were hurt as children, in the hope that we can convince him or her to finally love and accept us.
Our conscious self is drawn to the positive qualities we yearn for, but our unconscious draws us to the qualities which remind us of how we were wounded the most.
This explains part of why we get so awkward and insecure around people we’re intensely attracted to.
It also explains why our greatest heartbreaks often occur with these most intense, fiery attractions. Some of us react to these past heartbreaks by only dating those on the low end of the spectrum. We are frightened of the intensity and the risk of painful loss when we deal with people on the high end of the attraction scale. We often feel safest with people who don’t do much for us on a physical or romantic level because it just feels more comfortable that way. But the downside is usually boredom, frustration and lack of passion.
Many others only date people on the high end of the spectrum, just going for the iconic types, because they believe that that’s where real love and passion lie. With someone who is a “high number” on your attraction spectrum, you can tell that you’re attracted in a fraction of a second. While this can be achingly exciting, it’s rarely comfortable or secure.”
— How to Develop Sexual and Romantic Attraction to People Who Are Good for You (Psychology Today)
Eight Keys to Life Hardiness and Resiliency
Helpful Reminders During Challenging Times
Helen Keller once wrote: “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” As we navigate through challenging times toward a better future, it’s useful to visit some tried and true ideas regarding life hardiness and resiliency. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list, but rather a reminder of some existential ideas we sometimes set aside as we tend to the hectic details of daily life.
1. The power of perspective
Life is not always easy. We all know that. How we choose the way we think, feel, and act in relation to life’s challenges can often make the difference between hope versus despair, optimism versus frustration, and victory versus defeat. With every challenging situation we encounter, ask questions such as “What is the lesson here?” “How can I learn from this experience?” “What is most important now?” and “If I think outside the box, what are some better answers?” The higher the quality of questions we ask, the better the quality of answers we will receive. Ask constructive questions based on learning and priorities, and we can gain the proper perspective to help us tackle the situation at hand.
“I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”
- Thomas A. Edison
2. Don’t focus on the mud
We should learn from the past, but not be stuck in it. Sometimes life circumstances and personal setbacks can haunt and prevent us from seeing our true potential and recognizing new opportunities. What has already happened we cannot change, but what is yet to happen we can shape and influence. At times the first step is simply to break from the past and declare that it is you, not your history, who’s in charge. Ask empowering questions such as “What matters to me now?” “How can I make a difference in this situation?” and “What’s the next step for my best interest and well-being?” Every moment we’re alive we can make new choices that help us move on and step toward a better future. If we pay attention to only mud on the ground after a storm, we won’t notice that the sky above us has already cleared. Goethe reminds us: “Nothing is worth more than this day.” Don’t focus on the mud. Make better choices today and move on.
3. All you have to do is ask…the right individuals
In life we sometimes may feel like we’re walking alone, but we don’t have to be as long as we’re honest with ourselves, and ask for help when needed. You can find strength and support through a “board of advisors” you create. These are your “go-to” people when you’re in need of sound advice, a new perspective, a certain expertise, or simply an empathetic ear. Members of the board can include individuals you know whose opinions you respect and character you trust. Your personal B.O.A. can also include your role models from past and present, historical or fictional. Ask, for example: “What would (role model A) say about my situation?”, or “What would (role model B) do if she were in my shoes?” Asking for help is not the same as complaining. Habitual complainers dwell on what’s wrong. Successful people assume responsibility for finding the support they need to solve the problem.
“Normal people have problems. The smart ones get help.”
- Daniel Amen
4. Thrive on your strengths while exploring new potential
We each have certain dispositions in which we naturally excel. Some of us are great with people, others are handy with tools, yet others thrive on information. A mismatch between what you’re naturally good at and your work in life is wasted potential. There are a myriad of assessment tools available that can help you determine your natural strengths, as well as your areas of greatest potential.
“When you follow your bliss… doors will open where you would not have thought there would be doors, and where there wouldn’t be a door for anyone else.”
- Joseph Campbell
5. Keep the fun and enjoyment
Van Wilder from the movie of the same name said: “You shouldn’t take life too seriously. You’ll never get out alive.” No matter how difficult the circumstances, resolve to keep the fun and enjoyment in your life. Make a point to take a “mini-vacation” everyday; be it walking in the park, exercising, hugging a loved one, or taking a nice, hot bath. The more challenging and stressful life is, the more important it is to take good care of yourself so you can relax your body, ease your mind, and rejuvenate your spirit. After recharging your batteries, you may see the same situation in a different, more positive light.
6. Keep your options open
There are many paths to opportunity, success, and happiness. We can begin by asking ourselves what true success and happiness means and looks like to us, and let our answers show the way. When one path seems to be at a dead end, look another way and see what new openings may be waiting just around the corner. Options can come from consulting the aforementioned board of advisors, thinking outside the box, daring to dream, doing something different, or simply letting go of a habit or condition that has clearly outlived its usefulness. We’re never stuck unless we have blinders on. Keep your options open.
“We must dare to think ‘unthinkable’ thoughts. We must learn to explore all the options and possibilities that confront us in a complex and rapidly changing world.”
- James W. Fulbright
7. Keep the faith
There are many ways to keep your faith alive: Faith in yourself, faith in your place in this world, and faith in answers the Universe has in store for you. Go to places and engage in activities that give you the greatest feeling of inner peace. When you give yourself this gift on a regular basis, what psychologists call the Higher Self emerges, as insights, inspiration, and a sense of deep knowing spring forth from the depth of your soul.
The following quote by Anne Frank is just one example: “The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely, or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature, and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature.”
As you immerse yourself in peace, ask: “What if what I’m going through is a blessing in disguise? What greater meaning exists for me now?” Put forth these and any other constructive questions that come straight from your heart. Don’t try to figure out the answers during these moments, but rather “empty your mind” and let the solutions come to you. The answers may come at that moment or later: sometimes when the time is right; sometimes when you least expect them. All you have to do is hold the questions and pay attention.
Keep the faith. Find your peace within, and the answers will come!
8. Resolve to never, ever give up
I once heard a courageous person say that there are no losers in life, except for those who give up on themselves. If you’re still alive and breathing, your purpose in this life time is not yet fulfilled. The great adventure is in discovering what that purpose is, and to live it until your last breath. If you’re reading this article, you’re probably being pulled by an inner calling to do more. That calling is your adventure waiting to happen. What are you waiting for? And what are you willing to do now?
“Abraham Lincoln lost eight elections, failed twice in business and suffered a nervous breakdown before he became the president of the United States.”
- Wall Street Journal
“If you don’t have the capacity to change yourself and your own attitudes, then nothing around you can be changed.”
- Anwar Sadat
“The marvelous richness of human experience would lose something of rewarding joy if there were no limitations to overcome. The hilltop hour would not be half so wonderful if there were no dark valleys to traverse.”
- Helen Keller
➜ Surviving Anxiety
A powerful, must-read first-hand account of The Atlantic editor Scott Stossel’s lifelong battle with (and eventual embrace of) crippling anxiety issues. Anybody who has ever struggled with anxiety, or knows someone who has, will find something of value in this extraordinary and brave essay.
And after you’ve read his essay, please make sure to read the companion piece, This is Anxiety, featuring stories from other Atlantic readers about their own battles with anxieties of all kinds, how they’ve survived, what’s helpful, and what isn’t.
(A big, BIG thank you to The Atlantic for running these pieces, and doing their part to raise awareness and fight the stigma around talking openly about mental illness.)
Tips To Begin A New Year
What makes a new beginning feel like a challenge is that not knowing yet if we’ll succeed or fail. In order to predict the outcome, we project what we have experienced in the past onto the new venture. That can be a problem.
But there is a state of mind that we can tap into when starting something new. In Zen Buddhism it’s called ‘beginner’s mind,’ state of freshness where you experience everything anew in each moment. It means that you have no expectations, no fixed view of yourself, anything is possible. Here are some ways to adopt ‘beginner’s mind’ to make your new start in 2014 easier.
Focus on action. We tend to imagine future outcomes instead of focusing on the present, which can create anxiety. The trick is to focus on one step at a time, rather than the whole journey. If you begin to struggle, ask yourself, ‘What is the next step?’
Fall down seven times, get up eight times. Toddlers are well versed in the practice of pulling themselves back up again every time they fall, but adults often forget that when learning new skills, they will ‘fall’ several times before they succeed. We need to cultivate an attitude where we recognise stumbling as ‘I’m learning’, and continue with determination.
Banish negative thoughts. Fear breeds negative thoughts. When we are on the verge of something new, negative thoughts can derail us. There is a simple way to let go of them by using an ‘Uplift Bracelet’. You can use an elastic wrist bracelet for this strategy. By simply changing the bracelet to the other wrist each time you have a negative thought, you can train yourself to be more positive.
Let go of ‘shoulds’. When we are about to start something new, our family and friends are usually only too happy to give their opinion of what we should or shouldn’t be doing. ‘Shoulds’ are other people’s ideas of what our lives should be like, and can hinder us from moving forward. Every time you encounter a should, ask: ‘Say’s who?’
Chests puffing up with pride — and happiness felt head to toe — are sensations as real as they are universal. And now we can make an atlas of them.
Researchers have long known that emotions are connected to a range of physiological changes, from nervous job candidates’ sweaty palms to the racing pulse that results from hearing a strange noise at night. But new research reveals that emotional states are universally associated with certain bodily sensations, regardless of individuals’ culture or language.
More than 700 participants in Finland, Sweden and Taiwan participated in experiments aimed at mapping their bodily sensations in connection with specific emotions. Participants viewed emotion-laden words, videos, facial expressions and stories. They then self-reported areas of their bodies that felt different than before they’d viewed the material. By coloring in two computer-generated silhouettes — one to note areas of increased bodily sensation and the second to mark areas of decreased sensation — participants were able to provide researchers with a broad base of data showing both positive and negative bodily responses to different emotions.
Researchers found statistically discrete areas for each emotion tested, such as happiness, contempt and love, that were consistent regardless of respondents’ nationality. Afterward, researchers applied controls to reduce the risk that participants may have been biased by sensation-specific phrases common to many languages (such as the English “cold feet” as a metaphor for fear, reluctance or hesitation). The results are published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Although each emotion produced a specific map of bodily sensation, researchers did identify some areas of overlap. Basic emotions, such as anger and fear, caused an increase in sensation in the upper chest area, likely corresponding to increases in pulse and respiration rate. Happiness was the only emotion tested that increased sensation all over the body.
The findings enhance researchers’ understanding of how we process emotions. Despite differences in culture and language, it appears our physical experience of feelings is remarkably consistent across different populations. The researchers believe that further development of these bodily sensation maps may one day result in a new way of identifying and treating emotional disorders.
The Seven Habits of Highly Emotionally Healthy People
How to treat psychological injuries and improve emotional resilience
Most of us pay close attention to our health and we treat threats to our physical well-being as soon as they occur. We dress warmly when we feel a cold coming on, we apply antibacterial ointments and bandages to cuts and scrapes, and we don’t pick at scabs as they heal. We sustain psychological injuries in life just as often as we do physical ones, but we are much less proactive about protecting our psychological well-being, than we are our physical well-being. Adopting the following seven habits and ‘treating’ common psychological injuries when they occur will help protect your mental health and improve your emotional resilience.
1. Gain Control after a Failure: Failure distorts our perceptions such that our goals seem more out of reach and our capacities seem less up to the task. Once we feel as though there is little we can do to succeed, we become demoralized and lose our motivation. Adopt the habit of ignoring this misleading ‘gut’ reaction and make a list of the many factors related to your goal that were in your control (e.g., effort, preparation, planning, different approaches you could have taken, and others). Then, consider how you might go about improving each of these factors. Doing so will not only combat defeatist misperceptions, it will drastically improve your chances of future success.
2. Find Meaning in Loss and Trauma: One of the main factors that distinguishes those who thrive emotionally after experiencing loss or trauma from those who do not, is their ability to eventually find meaning in their experiences and to derive purpose from them. Of course, doing so takes time, as does the process of grieving and adapting to new realities. However, adopting the habit of searching for ways to recognize not just what you’ve lost, but what you’ve gained as well, will allow you to develop new appreciations for your life and the people in it, to make important changes, and to find value, meaning, and purpose even if you lacked them before.
3. Disrupt the Urge to Brood and Ruminate: When we brood over distressing events we rarely gain insight into them. Instead, we replay upsetting or angering scenarios in our heads, which only increases our urge to brood and makes us feel worse (read more about the dangers of brooding here). Therefore, despite how compelling the urge to brood is, adopt the habit of disrupting the brooding cycle as soon as you catch yourself ruminating about the events in question. The best way to do this is to distract yourself with a task that requires concentration—such as a game of Sudoku, trying to recall the exact order of the stations on your bus/subway line, or watching an absorbing show.
4. Nurture Your Self-Esteem: Our self-esteem fluctuates such that we feel better about ourselves some days than we do others. But many of us become self-critical when we’re feeling bad, essentially kicking our self-esteem when it’s already down. To improve your mental health, adopt the habit of regarding your self-esteem as an ‘emotional immune system’ that needs to be nurtured back to health when it’s ailing (read more about that here). The best way to ‘heal’ damaged self-esteem is to practice self-compassion. When you have self-critical thoughts, consider what you would do if a dear friend had similar feelings. Write out what you would say to them in an email if you wanted to express compassion and support. Then read the email as if they had sent it to you.
5. Revive Your Self-Worth after a Rejection: Rejections are so hurtful we often try to make sense of our emotional pain by finding fault in ourselves. Our reasoning is that if we hurt so much, we must be really weak/pathetic/a loser/unworthy/fragile/unlovable, etc… Rejection hurts as it does not because there’s something wrong with us but because of how our brains are wired (read more about that here). The best way to ease emotional pain and revive your self-worth after a rejection is to adopt the habit of affirming aspects of yourself you value, qualities you possess that you find meaningful (e.g., loyalty, compassion, creativity, or a strong work-ethic). Make a list of such attributes, choose one or two and write a short essay about why the quality is important to you.
6. Combat Loneliness by Identifying Self-Defeating Behaviors: Chronic loneliness is much more common then we realize and it has a devastating impact on our emotional and physical health (read how loneliness can shorten your life-expectancy here). The problem is that once we feel lonely, we often act in ways to minimize the risk of further rejection by unconsciously engaging in self-defeating behaviors and sabotaging opportunities to make new social connections or to deepen existing ones. The best way to combat loneliness is to adopt the habit of identifying and challenging these self-defeating behaviors. Make a list of excuses you’ve used to avoid taking initiative in social situations (e.g., I won’t know anyone at the party so why go? They don’t call me so why should I call them? They’re probably too busy to meet up. I can’t just introduce myself to a stranger at a cocktail party). Now make a list of people whose company you’ve enjoyed in the past (go through your phone book, Facebook friends, and Email contacts) and reach out to one or two of them each day to initiate plans until your social calendar is full. Challenge yourself to avoid using excuses from your list when you feel anxious.
7. Shed Excessive Guilt by Repairing Damaged Relationships: Excessive guilt occurs when our actions or inactions have harmed another person (most often a close friend or relative) who has not forgiven us for our wrongdoing. Such situations usually have more to do with the inadequacies of our apologies than with the inability of the other person to ‘let go’ of their hurt. Indeed, the crucial ingredient an effective apology requires—and the one we most often miss—is empathy. For the other person to truly forgive you, adopt the habit of conveying effective apologies when you’ve done wrong. To do so, make sure the other person feels you totally ‘get’ how they felt as well as how they were impacted by your actions (read more about rendering effective apologies here). Once you’ve expressed adequate empathy, the other person is much more likely to feel your apology is sincere and to convey authentic forgiveness. Your guilt will dissolve soon thereafter.